“What is manila anyway?”
“Is it a substance, color maybe. In the kitchen we’ll do a nice manila.”
“I’d say, `by the time we dug him up, he turned manila.'”
After Veronica Mars and her father, Keith, discover that manila folders were indeed made out of hemp that grows in its namesake city in the Philippines, Keith then jokes about filing giving him a `killer buzz.’ Alas, the folder, nor the color or substance, are the subject of Orenda Fink’s new album. The name of Fink’s new band was originally to be Art Belle, but fearing retribution from Men in Black, little green men and hordes of others `watching the skies,’ thanks to conspiracy theory-driven radio host Art Bell, they changed the moniker to Art in Manila, a sly reference to Bell’s self-imposed exile in the Philippines with his new bride. Changing the story, back in 2005, Montreal’s / Toronto’s Stars urged its listeners, when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to Set Yourself on Fire. Fink provokes a different tactic, asking to Set the Woods on Fire, as if someone had just screamed, “Goody Proctor’s a witch,” and the poor lass went running off into the forbidden forest wherein Satan dwells. All of this really has nothing to do with the music of Art in Manila, so really I’ve just wasted about three minutes of your time. However, rest assured, Set the Woods on Fire is worth every minute.
“Time Gets Us All” lulls us into a relaxed, yet slightly paranoiac mood, not only with its themes of inevitable aging and death, but also in its Jenny Lewis playing the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks atmosphere. “Our Addictions” begins with a familiar Stooges riff before one of the three guitarists throws in his best early Edge homage. Fink’s voice is at its exquisite best blend of folk, pop and rock, like a mixture of Emmylou, Ann Wilson and Pat Benatar. “The Abomination,” lyrically, is like a Frankenstein’s monster combination of Neko Case’s “Star Witness” and her recounting of seeing a suicide, and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” its narrator recalling an early illness that affected the rest of his life. “I Thought I Was Free” and the ensuing title track continue to marry Fink’s gorgeous vocals with melodic and intense keyboard and guitar driven folk rock. Goody Proctor has nothing on Fink, whose music is some kind of enchanting, enticing and dazzling witchcraft.
“Golden Dawn” displays that magic beautifully, as her refrain, “boy get on your knees, you’ll be redeemed” was so convincing that I nearly slumped out of my chair to my patellae. The Spanish guitar feel of “Anything You Love” continues the spellbinding effect of this album, stripping down the song to its barest essentials to highlight Fink’s entrancing voice. When in the former track, Fink sings of finding your God, and in the latter exclaiming that `we can be saved,’ you believe her with the utmost trust. Like Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” If this atheist can be so moved, then so can nearly anyone. And if I believe that God does indeed exist, I believe that God exists in the voices of artists like Sufjan Stevens and Orenda Fink. What comes next is probably the unlikeliest of covers, yet one that succeeds so well that it’s difficult to retreat back to that puzzled state that came before the actual hearing of the song. Fink and company take on Les Savy Fav. Yes, that’s right, Fink plays the role of Tim Harrington as the band takes on “The Sweat Descends,” a Fav single from 2004 that now appears on the collection, Inches. Orenda effectively slows down the manic tune, transforming it into a tight little ball of restrained seduction as opposed to an outpouring of kinetic energy. This essentially transforms the lyrics from something somewhat dirty to something altogether alluringly sensual. The choruses resemble some kind of angelic Pixies b-side as opposed to a Fav freak-out. It’s arguably one of the best covers of the year.
“Spirit, Run” is a sparkly little gem tucked away toward the close of the album, sounding like a welcome return of Fink’s previous lauded band, Azure Ray. This My Bloody Valentine / Smiths inspired reverb-fueled meditation is so hypnotic I found myself getting lost in it every time I tried to listen and analyze. That’s great for Fink’s songwriting abilities, not so great for the writer trying to distill its essence. Getting to the end of the song is like waking up in an unfamiliar place and struggling to regain your bearings. “Precious Pearl” continues the dreamlike state with an extended closing section of harmony vocals. “The Game,” the last track on the album, returns to a Jenny Lewis kind of feel as was found early on in the record.
This likeness shouldn’t be surprising considering the incestuous band of musicians associated with Saddle Creek. Not only is Lewis on Conor Oberst’s label, but also nearly every member of Art in Manila was once part of a past Saddle Creek band. Orenda even married Todd Baechle of Saddle Creek’s The Faint! And, as I probably would have done, considering how damn cool her name is, Todd changed his name to Fink. Not only does Orenda Fink have one of the coolest names in indie rock, she now has one of the best albums of 2007 so far. Set the Woods on Fire sets the bar for delicately beautiful vocals set over genre-bending intricately textural music. And if Goody Proctor just happens to deflect her torment and call Fink a witch, then call me a toad and give me a smackeroo!